Martin Luther Serenades Baby Jesus

Martin Luther Serenades Baby Jesus

Hymn #206 — “Away in a Manger”

Text: Anonymous (ca. 1883, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Music: William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921);
harmonized by Rosalee Elser (b. 1925)
Tune name: CRADLE SONG

Martin Luther Serenades Baby Jesus.jpg

Even though the hymnal says the text is by “Anonymous,” there’s evidence to suggest that it was in fact written by the reformer, Martin Luther. See Jason’s comments below.

The text is another beautiful lullaby to the Baby Jesus.

The tune has a lilt in it with eighth notes at the end of many of the bars, on beat 3. Quarter, quarter, eight, eighth. Almost every time the lilting eighth notes occur in the melody, one of the other voices follows along. The alto, tenor and bass each take a turn or two singing their own 2 lilting eighths all by themselves.

The sense of a quiet night is helped along by the minor 6 chord and minor 2 chord at the end of line 1, “his bed.”

The second line continues the minor 2 chord for a while before moving towards the 5 chord and pausing on it for a half cadence at the end of the line.

Line 3 starts the tune over again and sings the same melody as line 1. The harmony is mostly the same until the very end where we get a 5 or 2 chord (with the F# in the bass) pausing on 2 chord.

And line 4, with nearly the same tune as line 2, follows suit in the harmony matching line 2 until the very last moment.

The tune is gentle and rises for a full line, then spends the next line working its way back down. It does that both times and ends carefully at the end, as if gently placing the baby Jesus back in the manger.

Not much to it. It’s lovely and simple and a Christmas staple.

That’s all for today. Have a good one!


Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

The text for this popular carol is commonly attributed to Martin Luther. It has often been called “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” The text first appeared anonymously in Little Children’s Book: For Schools and Families (Philadelphia, 1885). Two years later, it was published in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses (Cincinnati, 1997 by James R. Murray, who printed the song under the heading “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” commenting that it was “composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” Though it is nice to think about, it is likely that attribution to Martin Luther is in error, and that the text comes by anonymous means.

This text suitable for children singing has been set to several commonly-known tunes, but the tune most commonly used in hymnals is CRADLE SONG by William Kirkpatrick, a suitable melody for its simplicity and dignity. It is a very fine tune, and I think it is the best of the tunes used for this text.

For congregational singing, I think it very important to not take this at a tempo that drags and is laboriously slow. There must be forward direction for the singer to maintain support. It is not good to have a hymn played so slowly that folks must breath during a phrase. The tempo I think is very appropriate is around 86-88 beats per minute. This helps maintain that forward propulsion that should accompany congregational singing. I recommend a soft registration for this hymn, and likely would not add any stops at any point, but keep the registration soft and simple.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8, Flute 8’, 4’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped